Thursday, December 6, 2018

‘But We’ve Always Done It That Way!”

Why are there always three wise men in the Nativity scene?
There’s a story about an aging monk that had a pet cat. The feline was fine, except when its owner was engaging in silent meditation. Then its constant meowing and rubbing up against his leg was distracting, disrupting his spiritual reflection. So he decided to tie it to a tree during his quiet times. When he was finished, the monk would release the cat and bring it back into his room.

Time passed and one day the monk died, leaving behind his pet. His fellow monks dutifully continued to care for the cat just as their deceased brother had done. One day the cat also died; the monks obtained another cat to replace it in the dead monk’s memory. As they had with the other cat, once a day they would tie it to a tree.

When asked why they were doing that, the men of the holy order replied, “That’s what Brother Jerome always did. We never asked him why, but we don’t want to ruin his tradition.”

It’s been said that the seven last words of the church are, “But we’ve always done it that way!” Many traditions and practices are well-considered and worth perpetuating, but sometimes rituals are repeated simply out of habit (no pun on the monk story), without any good reason.

For instance: Orders of service that never change. The same types of music always being played, without variation. The same version of the Bible always being read without question. Sacraments performed on the same Sunday of each month. Identical prayers being repeated. Maybe the same Christmas program every year; the only changes being who fills the key roles of Mary, Joseph and Baby Jesus. Having three wise men in the Nativity scene, even though most likely the Magi didn’t arrive in Bethlehem until months after Jesus was born – and no one knows for certain there were three of them. 

It’s like Heather, who routinely would cut the ends off the Christmas ham while preparing it for her family’s holiday dinner. One day her husband, Henry, asked, “Honey, why do you cut the ends of the ham before putting it in the oven?” “Well,” she responded, “that’s the way my mom always did it.”

The next Christmas the family went to Heather’s mom’s for dinner, and as expected, her mother cut the ends off the ham before putting in to bake. Henry seized the opportunity to ask, “Mom, that’s what Heather does – cuts the ends off the ham before baking it. Why do you do it?” The mother-in-law replied, “That’s what I learned from my mother.”

As it happened, Grandma was joining them for dinner, so after she arrived, Henry couldn’t wait to pop the question. “Grandma Harriet, why do you cut the ends of the Christmas ham?” Without blinking an eye, she answered, “Well, early on as a young bride, I only had a small baking pan, and the hams were always too big. So I cut off the ends so the ham would fit into it.”

Traditions and rituals are good, as long as their practice remains useful and purposeful. But to maintain them simply because “we’ve always done that way before” isn’t a very good reason. As Ecclesiastes 3:1 tells us, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.”

This suggests that time might one day come to end, when the “season” for a certain tradition has drawn to a close. It’s true even for our spiritual rituals, like a daily prayer or quiet time. Must they always take place at a specific time and/or place? When we study the Bible, do we follow the same routine, never bothering to “mix it up” and experiment with a new approach? If we ask a blessing before meals, do we use the same words every time? Do we always need to sit in the same spot during the worship service?

As long as these practices continue to enhance our walk with God, there’s probably no reason to change. But as devotional writer Oswald Chambers stated, let’s make sure they constitute our time with the Lord – and not just our time with our habit.

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